Everest Avalanche, Part 2 - The Day of the Avalancheby Russell Brice Jul/2014
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On 18 April 2014 a large avalanche swept down the western flank of Everest and over the Khumbu Icefall, where many Sherpas were carrying loads from Base Camp to C1 and C2. It took the lives of 16 people, the worst single incident in the history of Everest climbing.
The accident left a melee of argument, accusation and counter-accusation, ongoing rows which have spread from the Sherpas and commercial operators right through to the Nepalese government.
Below is the second in a series of pieces from a Western operator's perspective, adapted from blogs written by Himalayan Experience owner Russell Brice, one of the leading companies on the mountain. Part one looked at the background to the incident; part two covers the search following the avalanche, and how bungling officials hampered efforts at base camp.
On the day of the avalanche my company Himalayan Experience had 19 Sherpas carrying loads to Camp 2 (C2). We were very lucky that none were involved. When the avalanche hit, below C1, they were returning from C2 to C1 and were above the dangers. Those that arrived early were erecting our C1 emergency tent where we store mats, sleeping bags, stoves, food, oxygen, first aid equipment and shovels. The fact that they were putting up this tent meant that my Sherpa staff had not started down through the Icefall at that fateful moment.
The rescue equipment which we had stashed at C1 immediately became useful following the avalanche, and the oxygen equipment helped stabilise one of the injured Sherpas from another team.
Of course we are all affected by such an incident either directly or indirectly, and we all suffer from shock, but what is amazing is the way that everyone works together to co-ordinate such a massive rescue effort, which involved efforts on the ground and by helicopter. We never have the chance to practise these logistics in advance but on the day everyone lent a helping hand. To see so many people running up the hill unhesitatingly putting themselves in danger in order to help others is most creditworthy. It was a huge effort by all concerned including the various doctors around camp helping at the rescue site or at Base Camp (BC), and the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) dealing with casualties that were delivered directly to their hospital tent.
My Sherpa staff stayed at C1 until we could see that they were not required during the rescue efforts. On the way down they conducted a transceiver search, but found no signals.
It was important to the families of the missing that their bodies be found.
Eventually the weather started to close in, making flying more difficult. It was now the middle of the day, a time when higher temperatures make it unsafe to be in the middle of the icefall, so it was decided to call off rescue operations even though rescuers had located one more body and knew that three were still missing.
Some of the rescuers were airlifted to BC and a plan of action was made for the following day. Next day 12 Western and Sherpa guides went back up to the avalanche site. It was decided that they would all spend four hours on site unless they had found definite clues that they could find more victims. This was the equivalent of spending 48 man hours searching, but sadly the only recovery was the one person who had already been located the day before.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation got involved - the government department responsible for the system on Everest.
Without consultation they sent a large military helicopter to Pheriche to collect the bodies. We could have stored these bodies in a respectful manner at BC until the following day and then taken them to the respective villages where families wanted them. However despite several requests to take the bodies to a central location in the Khumbu, they were in fact taken to Lukla for further identification by the police, a job that the Ministry-appointed Liaison Officers (LO) at BC should have been able to do. Then the military helicopter had a mechanical fault so apparently had to stay overnight causing total indignation to the grieving families.
The smooth evacuation of the injured from the mountain to Lukla was also interrupted because of this Ministry intervention, and we found out later that some of the injured were not flown to Kathmandu until 18.00 that evening when some of the rescue pilots were returning home, though they should have been evacuated to Kathmandu at about midday.
There appear to be major problems with the Ministry: the lack of action concerning the Sherpa demands after the Everest avalanche, and the dismal safety record of aviation in Nepal, are only two of the more obvious indicators.
Partly this is because the Under Secretary is frequently changed. Sometimes it's a good person who wants to understand, whilst at other times we have corrupt or obstructive people. Having been to several meetings with the current Under Secretary in the week [following the incident] I was appalled by the conceited and abusive manner with which he dealt with my staff and others of considerable repute. I have witnessed him stroking the chin of Tamding Sherpa from my agency, and yelling at Damber Parajuli, President of the Expedition Operators Association.
The current undersecretary made big news prior to this year’s Everest season by announcing that there would be three Police, three Military and three Ministry people at Base Camp acting as Liaison Officers. Operators were very pleased with this announcement as we have been asking for this for many years. But on the day of the avalanche there were only three Liaison Officers at Base Camp. I asked the Under Secretary why the promised LOs were not there and he told me they could not get to BC because of bad weather despite the fact that all our members, staff and the like, had made it.
There were 39 teams on Everest this year, each requiring its own LO. It was very unsatisfactory that only three out of 39 LOs were at BC.
Each LO is paid $2,500 plus travel expenses, so this spring we as expedition teams paid a little under $100,000 for nothing. Where did this money actually go?
On the day of the avalanche the LOs should have been the conduit for the Ministry to stay informed of events on the mountain, but they had no idea what they should be doing. In fact the Ministry in Kathmandu gained its information by looking at blogs form various teams and individuals - hardly a reliable source. One of the LOs yelled at my doctor, Anne Brants, who had the unenviable job of establishing that each victim was indeed dead, and then tagging and wrapping the body in a tarpaulin. The LOs should have been able to then write a letter confirming the identity of the person and that they had died, but they could not even manage this.
I put the blame squarely on the Ministry for sending untrained people as Liaison Officers, despite there being very clear guidelines in the rule book about the necessary qualifications.
Among many other issues, the EOA and the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) have been lobbying the Ministry on the subject of Liaison Officers. What's going wrong?
During the Maoist rule of Nepal the government was unable to rewrite the constitution so that, in effect, the Ministry had no leadership and no power to make changes to the rules. It has been a sad period of Nepal’s history but with a new government now maybe, just maybe, there is a chance for change.